We’ve all seen the pictures of Peru’s Rainbow Mountain on Instagram, and in advertisements. If you’ve been to Peru, you’ve definitely seen the brightly-colored photos of Rainbow Mountain on a stunning, sunny day with only the trekker and whoever took his picture standing on the peak. Ha! Rainbow Mountain is an increasingly popular day trip from Cuscu and one of the most popular attractions in all of South America.
I’m here to tell you the Montana de Seite Colores isn’t what it appears to be in the photos. The editing that is done to create the colors that could never occur in nature has a lot of people fooled. But the lone person in the photo is an even bigger lie! You will NEVER be alone on Rainbow Mountain unless you’re there in the dark. Since the government of Peru built a road (a true feat of engineering) to allow buses to drive people to within 5km of the actual peak, this mountain has both retained its beauty and taken quite a beating.
I first read a hilarious account of one British guy’s trek to Rainbow Mountain with another guy he’d met while traveling. They walked for days, got lost, bushwhacked, and generally had a horrible time of it. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, and now I can’t find the blog post online. Clearly he completed his trek before the road was built. There is no trekking now. No one needs a walking stick (I beg you not to take the free ones offered to you, especially if you just plan on dragging it behind you and tripping people), or fancy shoes, or official “gear.” Warm clothing, rain gear and poncho, Ziploc for your camera, some water and you’re all set. Get ready to walk through the mud while struggling to breathe.
The mountain was only named Rainbow Mountain when National Geographic referred to it this way for the sake of publicity. This name is easier for non-Spanish speakers. The government quickly figured out they had a tourist attraction on their hands, and if they made it easier to get to, locals could make a pretty penny from the tourism industry. That’s exactly what they’re doing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Or is there?
Here’s how my trip to Rainbow Mountain went, from start to finish. I booked a tour online before arriving in Peru. The reputable tour company charged 45 USD, as do all of the others. But there’s no need to book this tour before arriving in Cusco. It’s so easy to book after you arrive, and you can probably negotiate the price, although all the companies I’ve seen in Cusco charge 45 USD, and it’s actually a good price. The tour company arranged a driver to pick me up at 4:30 AM, which he did, and then he dropped me in Centro Historico to be picked up by the person who would actually drive me to Rainbow Mountain.
The driver arrived on time in an SUV, with three young men from Korea squished into the back seat with their day packs. They were university students and some of the nicest, most polite young men I’ve ever met. I hopped in the front seat and off we went. The drive to Rainbow Mountain takes 3.5 – 4 hours, including a breakfast stop after about 2.5 hours. When the tour company tells you it takes 3 hours, don’t believe them, don’t say anything, just know it takes longer than that. It doesn’t matter anyway.
We stopped for breakfast at a place that clearly earns a living from feeding tour groups. They were lovely people and had wonderfully clean bathrooms – with toilet paper (a rarity in Peru) – and a simple buffet breakfast for us. After breakfast, we were off again. From this point, the scenery gets pretty dramatic so I kept my eyes open and took it all in. Stunning countryside. I was so happy I wasn’t driving or I would’ve missed it.
At 9:00 AM we arrived at the parking area, which is about 5km from the peak of Rainbow Mountain. Our guide, who was actually on a minibus with another group, gave us instructions. He ticked our names off a list, gave each of us a ticket and bought tickets for those who didn’t have them already, and said he would be walking with the slowest people. What’s important to note about our guide is that he said it would take between 2 and 2.5 hours to reach the top, and that everyone should be there by 11:30. It’s okay if they weren’t, but it would mean less time at the top. At the top, we had until 12:15 to take pictures and admire the views. So, about 45 minutes. The bottom line was at 12:15, you had to start back down the mountain.
I say that this is important because there were other guides that told their groups that they had five minutes for photos and that it was dangerous to stay at 5200 meters any longer than that. This isn’t true, but apparently the guides are just in a hurry. Forty-five minutes or an hour isn’t dangerous unless you feel serious symptoms of altitude sickness. Guides who rush their groups are very common.
Now for the actual climbing of the mountain. We showed our tickets at the entrance, and along each side of us – there were hundreds of people entering at various times, by the way – were a line of horsemen prepared to take you as far as they are allowed up the mountain. No easy task for them or the horses. On the other side were women in traditional dress, or their everyday clothes, just waiting for tourists to pay them to have their picture taken with them. The horsemen would do the same. I despise this aspect of tourism and had a very hard time keeping my mouth shut while watching 20-somethings from the US and Canada jump right in and dish out their soles to get a picture with one of these impressive women.
I realize these women are just trying to earn money. It just seems demeaning, and sends a message to others that no work is actually necessary in order to earn money. Years ago, when native people were asked by foreigners if they could take their picture, they simply replied yes or no. Now, it seems that locals have figured out that just by being themselves, they can charge money to tourists who want to take their photo. This concept is particularly bad in Peru. In Cusco, I was asked numerous times to take a photo of a girl in traditional clothing holding a lamb, claiming it was a baby alpaca. When I pointed out to one that she was indeed holding a lamb and did she not know what animal she was holding, she became, well, disgruntled with me. But her command of English was admirable.
Now it was time to climb. We were off! We started at about 4000 meters or 13000 feet. I knew slow and steady was better for me than fast, fast, stop. Not everyone had figured this out. Remember the walking sticks that people received in the parking lot? They were broom handles. They were a nuisance and completely unnecessary. I didn’t accept one. Later, the very girl who had tripped me with hers because she didn’t know how to use it (I didn’t see anyone who did) offered it to me because she didn’t want to carry it anymore. How old did she think I was? Or did she just think I was stupid?
Moving on. Keep climbing. Keep breathing. The climb is fairly brutal and unforgiving, but remember, it’s just for one day. A few hours. The elevation will kick your ass. It doesn’t matter how fit you are. The trail conditions? This is another negative of the increase in tourism. Making the mountain easier to climb has made the trail conditions deteriorate so much that a maintenance crew is needed on a daily basis. I saw them, shoveling, trying to contain the mud and build the trail up again, but I fear their work is simply an exercise in futility. While they worked to correct the damage done by so many horse hooves, the horses carrying tourists and breathing heavily tore up the other side of the trail and forced hikers off into the mud or into ditches created by water runoff.
I knew it would be like this, yet I didn’t want to believe it. But when I got there and started walking, and had to constantly navigate around deep mud and ditches, there was no denying that as someone who climbed Rainbow Mountain, I was part of the problem, not the solution. The trail conditions really were abysmal. The horsemen were prepared with rubber boots. Apparently several people fell due to the slippery conditions, but I didn’t see anyone fall.
So I continued, and at 11:00 I reached the saddle between two peaks. The best vantage point from which to see Rainbow Mountain. What did I see?
Not a damn thing! There was so much fog and so many thick clouds that I literally could not see Rainbow Mountain, less than 50 meters in front of me. I was standing on it, but I couldn’t even see it. It was 11:00. It took me two hours to climb. I had 1 hour 15 minutes to wait for the clouds to clear in hopes of getting that iconic shot. While waiting, I saw enterprising local women selling candy, chips, and even hot coca tea. Some of them looked very cold. They weren’t wearing socks and it was windy and cold up there at 5200 meters (17060 feet).
I waited. Chatted to the Korean guys I rode here with. Got hit by walking sticks that apparently had a mind of their own. Congratulated a Turkish couple on being on their honeymoon. For the record, I do not recommend climbing Rainbow Mountain as a honeymoon activity, and neither did they. People at the top of the mountain were taking selfies (shocking!), and group photos, but of what? There was nothing to see, so I guess they were happy to see themselves. Wanted proof they made it to the top maybe.
The fog did clear a few times. I snapped just as many pictures as most people, and maybe even more. Most of them are terrible. People were constantly jockeying for position to get “that” photo. And the selfies. Group shots. Standing where they shouldn’t be. There was actually security up there telling people to get off the wall or certain dangerous parts of the mountain. I felt sorry for the security people. The only reason they were up there is because of people’s stupidity, and they knew it. It never ceases to amaze me how many jobs are created because of human stupidity and selfishness. Gotta get that instagram shot!
My guide came around and checked on everyone, ticking names off a list, accounting for us I suppose. When I told him my name, he looked up at me and proclaimed, “Oh, you made it! You are a strong woman!” and then proceeded to shake my hand.
Dude, you don’t have any idea how strong I am. He doesn’t know what I’ve done. In this culture, I think people consider 35 old. He thought, as did almost all the 20somethings I met on this trip, that I was about 35. Yeah. Let’s go with that. Sounds good.
Time to head back down the mountain. Going down was, not surprisingly, much faster. No less muddy though. At least horses weren’t shoving me off the trail. I still had to contend with rogue walking sticks though, and was really starting to lose patience. I was reminded, once again, that I was part of the problem, not the solution. The rain started about halfway down. The mud got worse and rivulets of water flowed around the trail, creating deeper ditches. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the side of a mountain in such poor condition.
At the bottom I said goodbye to the Canadians I’d been chatting with and made my way to the car where I joined my new Korean friends and my less-than-enthusiastic driver for the long drive back to Cusco. Was it worth getting up at 4:00 AM, riding in a car for 3 hours, and trekking while trying to avoid all that mud? Was it worth witnessing all the negatives of tourism concentrated in this one spot? I honestly don’t think so.
I continue asking myself what the locals did to survive, to earn money, before this road was built. How desperate must these women have been to lower themselves to walking to that parking lot and allowing tourists to pay them just to take a photo, dragging their llamas behind them? Or maybe they weren’t desperate. Maybe they were smart… And the many horsemen? What did these horses do before this road was built? Some of these men guiding these horses were not young men. I mean, they had to have been at least 36!
I understand the desire to see this incredible natural wonder. The government built a road to get people within 5km of the mountain. This increase in foot traffic increased erosion to the point of no return. That said, this road has definitely boosted the local economy. Talk about a double edged sword. With the building of the road came jobs and income for the local people, but it is also leading to the destruction of the landscape and some negative aspects of tourism. While I feel very privileged to have seen this amazing natural wonder, I struggle with my contribution to the deterioration of a landscape and maybe even a culture.
Should you do it? Only you can decide that.